Julius Caesar Brings Bloody, Savage Statecraft Into the Present Day

Independent Shakespeare Co.

Paul Turbiak, Faqir Hassan, Kendell Byrd, and company in Julius Caesar. 

By Emerson L.
May 20, 2019

Before the start of the show, an actor in character as Cinna the poet, wine bottle in hand, broke the fourth wall to directly address the audience and explain how to lend their voices to crowd scenes, as cued by large monitors framing the stage. As the crowd, self-consciously at first, then more enthusiastically, shouted “Cinna the poet!” and the senators onstage filed into position, it was clear that this night at the Independent Shakespeare Company was no conventional production of Julius Caesar.

The staging was borrowed from the famous Orson Welles adaptation in its dystopian, minimalist aesthetic.  Costumes and props were evocative rather than explicit; the cast suggested disguise with mufflers or regiments with long, unadorned poles, effectively expressing ideas to the audience without the need for visual specificity or realism. The production also avoided clearly identifying with an era or location, unlike Welles’ brownshirts, opting instead for a more nebulous combination of Ancient Roman and futuristic; Caesar, played by David Melville, pulled a voluminous white toga over a uniform with gold buttons when preparing to address the Senate.

The set, bare and modern with exposed concrete and metal frames, did less to set the scene than the intense lighting, which favored harsh washes of blue and red. Finally, and most distinctly, the staging featured large screens on either side of the stage. The displays were dark or flashing with glitchy, eerie images of staring eyes when not in use, but during pivotal scenes, they projected the Roman mob’s lines for the audience to shout. I found this a novel solution to the problem of staging crowd scenes with only a cast of ten actors.  It was also an effective way to immediately engage the audience.

 

You may know the Independent Shakespeare Company (ISC) from their annual productions of Shakespeare in Griffith Park. A charitable organization that brings the classics to anyone interested every summer, ISC also have a studio in Glendale that puts on Shakespeare during the school year.

I saw quite a few students and young people at Julius Caesar; the ISC’s unconventional, fast-paced, and accessible stagings engage those who might otherwise be uninterested.  The mob scenes were a vigorous display of brutality. Faqir Hassan’s Brutus and his reflective asides commanded utter silence, and a beleaguered Kendell Byrd as Lucius, the servant boy, was a crowd favorite with groans of protest and lazy snores. A particular highlight was the electric, clamorous death of Cinna the poet played by Kelvin Morales. The audience barely needed the on-screen prompts to shout attempts to warn and save the hapless Cinna.

 

The production also had a few missteps; during more expositional scenes (too numerous were the vestigial remains of heavily cut characters and subplots), the energy flagged. Even the climactic death of Caesar, after three or four stabs, felt like a chore or a countdown as each senator laboriously detonated a squib. In some places, the minimalism of the staging worked against the actors, making scene shifts and character changes unclear or tonally undermining actions, such as an orator addressing a crowd while perching on a ladder like a kid on a jungle gym. However, on the whole, Julius Caesar at the ISC felt bloody and vital, simultaneously conspiratorial and crowdsourced, and an example of the best results of the company’s mission of dynamic and accessible theatre.

 

Julius Caesar ran at the Independent Shakespeare Co. Studio March 15 - May 11, 2019. The ISC will be presenting Pericles and Twelfth Night for its annual Griffith Park Free Shakespeare Festival beginning June 29, 2019.